Social Critics and the Human Face of Activism

Dennis Brutus poetry

This isn’t about Reuben Abati; it’s about you and me. He is just the ham in the sandwich, the one whose treachery, his becoming a mouthpiece for a government he once challenged, the spotlight’s beam has caught.

What makes a man leak from both sides of his mouth? I pondered this question and found it difficult to throw stones. Pebbles maybe, for I don’t want to excuse actions, but understand them.

So, I imagine that I am a writer with strong opinions who has nailed the art of persuading others with my words. My words are pregnant with love for my country, a sense of justice, and concern for the plight of the ordinary man. When published they give birth to a stream of followers whose voice I become.

This voice makes me a fly perching on the government’s egusi soup, small yet irritating. Knowing that spraying Shelltox is an overkill, the government places another bowl of soup on the table. Enter seduction: moving pleas from emissaries in babarigas and boubous, a call to arms for my country, not with an AK47, but with my words.

This seduction, more pleasurable than a woman’s fingers kneading coconut oil in my loins, causes my heart to race as visions of power, affluence, and a platform for greater influence fill my mind. Thoughts of Babangida’s offer to Tai Solarin surface. Does it matter? I know I will make a difference. I will no longer merely itemise our problems with lengthy editorials.

And so, I resume my new job in Aso Rock. The first thing that slaps me is the ineptitude of those I work with. The second is the indifference of those to whom I am accountable. All my lofty ideas, received with fist pumps, translated into memos that have been circulating in a hierarchical system that bemuses me, have reached the ceiling and died there.

In six months, only cosmetic changes like the framing and hanging of our work ethics in every office are visible. Money is changing hands, but mine are clean so far. I am preoccupied with change and our meeting minutes reflect this even if those that attend, now openly yawn.

Soon, I must sell a policy that smells like dead fish to the people whose voice I am or was; I am not sure for I am losing who I am or was. By this time, my children are in the best private school in Abuja, my wife has a thriving import business patronised by senator’s wives, and I have laid the foundation for my house in the village. My convictions have clashed with duty before, but this time, the stakes are higher.

I do what I must and then I read the outcry on social media. Haba! This longing for heroism, this cry for a saviour, did I put it in people’s heart? This search for credibility, is it because their lives are so untrue? At least, I answered the call. What about them? Useless people firing tweets in between replying emails in some god-forsaken cubicle!

I scratch my belly and the ten kilos I have gained causes it to wobble. I roll my tongue over canines that once drew blood, now blunt from lack of use. Look, I cannot sit on a pile of human praise anyway, such fickle things to base affirmation upon. Hands that tweeted me to the top show no mercy. I am a high-rise set to detonate. Before them, I crumble to the dust.

As elections draw near, I angle myself right. My loyalty may fetch a ministerial appointment. If not, I will offer media houses an exposé with names and lists. In the middle of the Twitter wars and Facebook debates, I will metamorphose into my old skin, a social crusader, a voice for all who forgive and forget.

The government needs human capital to build the Nigeria we dream of. When you are called, how will you serve?


I saw Reuben Abati once at a writing workshop where he was a keynote speaker. He must have delivered a good speech, I don’t recall. I remember that he was dark, average height, ordinary like you and me, yes, like you and me.


©Timi Yeseibo 2014


The poem by the South African activist, Dennis Brutus, addresses the conflict between love for one’s country and love for a woman. In it, I see also the conflict between heroism and self-preservation. African Soulja reviewed the poem here

Reuben Abati: Journalist and Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 –  ).

Egusi soup: Popular soup made with melon seeds.

Shelltox: Brand of insecticide.

Babarigas and boubous: Traditional clothing. Used here to denote a custom where elders cajole one’s hesitant feet into a course of action.

Ibrahim Babangida: Military dictator (1985 – 1993).

Tai Solarin: Deceased. Social critic and secular humanitarian. Served as chairman of the Babangida Administration’s People’s Bank, but later resigned in protest of corruption within the bank.

Aso Rock: The residence and office of the Nigerian President.


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27 thoughts on “Social Critics and the Human Face of Activism

  1. This was such an impressive piece and one that should provoke thoughts in the minds of every Nigerian especially young people. I think we have been distracted too much and it prohibits our ability to take the necessary actions. Interestingly, I was just about to blog on activism when I stumbled on this. Very Interesting.


    1. I’ve read your post and the one you pointed your readers to on Ynaija. I’m pleased that we are talking about these things and I especially like the different perspectives we’re bringing to the table. I hope more people think about these things, like you said. When I point a finger at anyone, the rest of my fingers point back at me. Thank you for stumbling on this piece and reading through.


  2. That man called Abati is someone I respect so much prior to his appointment. He contributed a lot to the field of journalism in Nigeria. However, after his appointment the man became an enemy of what true journalism stands for but like tobi has rightly said. Let me not judge since he might be under an influence he can not do otherwise for the fear of loosing his job and the other benefits you identified above


    1. In researching for this post, I found unsubstantiated claims that cracks had already appeared in Abati’s foundation years before. Moving beyond the man though, should activists serve in the corrupt governments they criticize? And if they serve because they want to contribute to development, should they not quit when they find that they are being taken for a ride? Is this not what Tai Solarin did with Peoples Bank?

      I think we should ask these questions of ourselves and form convictions ahead of time. Perhaps then, we would not easily stumble when called to serve. Then we might earn and keep the respect of others. Thanks Freeman for your comment.


  3. I used to think bad leaders MAY have a justifiable reason for their actions and shouldn’t be too criticized because they may not even be directly responsible for the evils of their administration. Then I became the President of the Nigerian Red Cross Society, Kano State(despite being a yoruba man who hasn’t been in the North fro more than 7months then). It was hectic for many reasons, 75% of my cabinet(just try to understand) were women and imagine me, unmarried, calling a married woman(the PRO) from her house to follow me for one assignment in a remote village. My financial secretary was a sickler and the men were downright all with a make-money political mindset. Eventually, my tenure expired and the superiors looked into our books and even monitored the activities and with general consensus from both the high and low (the masses)……we did well. None of us bought cars and stuff from the money but the satisfaction of helping lives is something my cabinet members keep saying when we talk. It’s about Love for the people you serve.


    1. Tobi, your comment is gold. Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s inspiring to note that you worked with a less than perfect cabinet, but still delivered. Your leadership skills are commendable.

      Your last sentence, “It’s about Love for the people you serve,” has me thinking. Love is a powerful motivating force. If our hearts are big enough, perhaps our activism stands a lesser chance of being corrupted.


      1. Thanks @golden comment. I think I should have added earlier that I had my secondary education at Mayflower Secondary School owned by Uncle Tai Solarin and he was really a strong influence on me….lol….so maybe you’re right and some of us benefitted from something many others may not have. Maybe if Mr Abati has had someone breathing it down his throat every day of his formative years that “vox populi,vox dei” and chanting “I shall pass through this world but once, any good thing I can do and any kindness I can show to any one alive, let me do it now for I shall never pass this way again”, maybe he would have been incorruptible.


        1. So, the slogans you chanted helped build your convictions. Kudos to uncle Tai. What you’ve shared makes me feel that writing, thinking & discussing issues that affect nation building are not a waste of time. We can make a difference one person at a time.
          @Reuben Abati, lol. I think we have to constantly reinforce our convictions or they may be diluted. Seduction is powerful, and any man can be weak on the day.


  4. Your words. Those of a true wordsmith…


    This is a serious topic. It is one I think about every time. I read quite a lot of political comments and posts on Facebook, and somehow I get depressed with each read. Activism has become a decent veil covering the eyesores of sentimentalism and selfishness. I see it every time. And it bothers me. I mean, what can we make of such a turn around in ideals on transition from the court of the masses to that of the princes?

    I want to say so much but I am afraid I will ramble. God help us.

    *One ongoing contest on Facebook just kept me away from your beautiful writings. I sha must read them, still. 🙂


    1. I think I know how you feel. It bothers me too . . . all the political commentary. But when my head hits my pillow at night, I wonder if I’m any better, if I will be any better if offered the opportunity. I hope that by thinking it through, writing about it, discussing it, and trying to understand why others made the switch, we can maintain our integrity if called to serve. Yes, God help us all.

      Samuel, it’s always a pleasure to have you here. If you tell me you won the contest on Facebook, I can “forgive” your absence 🙂


      1. Hehehe…then forgiveness might not come o. I am being lashed by a woman! ( Forgive the sexism. African man na African man 🙂 )

        You know, there is a friend of mine, Sodiq. He is a true activist. He tries as much as possible to be objective in his comments and actions. But it took me some time to see that because I was blinded by my own strong convictions about activism in this country. We would have these long and intense arguments about activism and the Nigerian situation. I learnt a lot from him especially because he is very very sound. I think he learnt from me, too. I think this happened because we LISTENED to each other.

        I wrote a poem titled ‘Struggling with the Pen’ and dedicated it to him. The poem was my attempt to question the morals of writing. Is it right to write only for entertainment? Honestly, I still don’t know. I am still grappling with that question. But writing the poem from the perspective of Sodiq helped me learn something new, see something different and maybe believe something I would ordinarily not accept.

        It is engagement with stuff on the other side of what we believe that makes us better humans. We might not understand it, believe it or accept it, but in “thinking it through, writing about it,[and] discussing it” we become better positioned to deal with it.


        1. As you know, where two or three Nigerians are gathered, political fireworks go off! Though we may not always see eye to eye, our passion for our country shines through, and I respect that in an “opponent”. You’ve summed it beautifully . . . engagement with the other side . . .

          I would love to read your poem. I think it is okay to write just for entertainment. Although we’re all writers, I think we are wired to write using different styles and on different topics, and the sky is wide enough. If I look at my blog stats, I could conclude that people want to read the entertaining stuff. I wonder if after a “hard” day at “work” people just want to read something “light”. Sort of like mindless channel surfing 🙂

          Sometimes, people “pressure” me to write about our “issues”. I don’t because although the issues matter to me, there is no burning conviction to write about them. It would be different, if I was paid to do so, but for now, I write about where my heart and pen want to go. And after an evening of such soul searching, Samuel, you should relax by reading:

          @lashed by a woman, let me massage your African man ego: don’t mind her jare, there must be some magumagu 🙂


          1. Hahahaha…it is true! Magumagu dey true true. Abeg find out for me:

            I think conviction is the word that sums it all. Write what you feel…what you can defend.

            Pardon my posting the poem here. I haven’t really published it:


            For Sodiq

            Vomit your silence
            Into a bucket full of tears
            Tears for sons
            Suns who presently absent
            Once shined the dreams of their mothers.

            Mothered by now murdered mothers,
            These girls are now mothering bastards
            Breast-feeding by genetic compulsion
            The stained innocence born of violent sowing.

            I will not discuss you, bookman
            And tell how your words only knit garments
            For roses and peacocks and fine queens
            I will not say how your pen
            Does not move conscience to action —
            Excuse me, what of the dying living in prison?

            Empty your silence, yes, empty it!
            Sorry, the bucket has excreted the tears
            Your screams are now melodious noise
            Weeping for tears at peace today
            With the rotting eyes that once shed them.


            1. I’m honoured that you would post the poem here. I like it, it shows your heart, your discontent at other’s ambivalence. If only what moves you, moves the rest . . . But yours is not a dying cause, many are also asking, “Excuse me, what of the dying living in prison?” perhaps not with words as eloquent as yours, but with passion that matches yours.

              @Facebook, I quickly scanned through. An ambitious venture, how did you even find time to drop by here? I’ll have to make out time to read the stories, and follow you.

              Thank you so much for sharing.


  5. I apologize it took too long to comment on this. I gotta be deep, ya know. Is it okay if I tell a little story? Not sure if it’s related to the post but I’ll fill this space regardless. Lol 😀

    Few weeks ago, we made the transition from math to reading (English Comprehension is Naija) in my class. The setting was remarkably different: it was more structured and we built lots of group activities into the curriculum. Of course my students expressed their displeasure because we infringed on their autonomy a lil bit and demanded more from them (note: these are students whose first language is NOT English Language). We assigned books and articles from Time magazine, worked on finding the topic/subject, etc.

    Two of my students were totally being difficult, although at different times. The first student refused to do any reading because he thought we “rubbed” him in a bad way. Maybe. Maybe not. We were just trying to set the tone with a bunch of rambunctious students. The other student was like an alley cat: get too close and you risk getting cut. This program is an “at will” program and they have the choice to opt out but we also have expectations and standards to keep.

    Here’s the thing:
    Power must change hands and WILL change hands. One of our challenges is right now; our youths- from high school to college level, their experiences, and their interpretation of civic duty and accountability. It begins at home and should be reinforced in school. No society– whether it makes available every possible resource for special ed.students or not, should avoid addressing the power/authority struggles between instructors and students in the classroom!

    I think we can safely infer that behavior in academic settings is the blue print for corporate and public administration culture in the society. We have enough buttholes in govt. already, why mass produce them again for the next generation? We serve when we are intentional about doing the right thing, not when it is conditional. I dare say that we are all mandatory reporters, and should raise the social critic flag whether we have a solution or not!

    And that kid with the attitude? We had her leave. American system or not, no kid is sleeping in my class with “Not interested” as an excuse!


    1. Your comment is spot on Maggielola. We are calling for leaders with integrity. Character isn’t built when we become leaders in the public or private sector. It is built brick by brick, by the choices we make at school, home, and the society. So kudos to you and your team for insisting on discipline and respect.


  6. It is overwhelming to think about the world’s injustices. But each step we take, each small contribution or ‘stand that we take’ makes a difference. So many people talk about the ripple effect, it is a true thing, that we have to try and make a ripple of change upon our land. I hope by writing we are doing something, Timi. I hope by showing love and concern this will help also. My parents marched for Civil Rights, took time off for a week to do this. I think their volunteering and their giving college money to students that my Mom chose were very influential. But, like you mentioned, what if we don’t have money to give? I don’t have the money they did, but I will hope someday to give to good causes. Meanwhile, we write… Thanks, Timi for the very powerful message you have here! I did not have time the other day when I read it, to respond! Hugs, Robin


    1. Yes Robin, the magnitude of injustice can cause us to wonder how we can make a difference. Words, written and spoken, have been instruments of change. If yours and mine can inspire right action, then we’ve scored. But before I inspire others, I hope to challenge myself to be a person of strong convictions who others can follow.

      Your parents put their money and time where their mouth was. We need to see more of that kind of consistency. Thanks for your comments.


  7. ” How will you serve” very pertinent question. It’s easy to throw stones but in reality a lot would do no different if they were in Reuben’s shoes. That being said, I still find it hard to understand the mans abrupt ” volte face” in recent times. It’s as if the real Reuben was kidnapped by aliens and replaced by a fake….yes yes…far out I know….blame it on the movies I watch 🙂
    I have been feeling rather introspective about Nigeria lately….thanks again for another great and insightful post.


    1. Well Reuben is over-performing at his current job for sure 🙂

      One of the aims of this post is to make us ask why. Can I be an activist if my basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, etc, haven’t been met? And if they have, can I still be an activist knowing the human (Nigerian) propensity for comfort & super affluence? Em . . . em . . . I’m not so sure 🙂


  8. Yeah its always easy to cast stones when you aren’t being stoned. Let me digress a little from the issue discussed most times the people who critisize the most do the same thing I have colleagues who hardly ever come to work at our resumption time which is at 8am and they are the first to critisize the government they spend hours on Facebook and other social medi and during work hours and still get paid . And this is just the least of their offences . Its easy to critisize that’s why so many engage in it , I think its a whole lot harder to profer solutions that’s why few do it. Its easier to blame other than to take the blame. I like what Jesus did he didn’t pick up a stone like the rest He profered a solution. Easier said than done I guess its human nature cos even when we were kids playing ball in the living room where we were warned not to and a glass shatters, mum walks in and ask who did it you and your sibling pointed at each other and said ‘ she /he did it


    1. True Tonbareg. Thank you so much for your perspective, which we can readily relate to. It drives the points home.

      And in my view, people are free to criticize, whether they have solutions or not. But, we should ask ourselves: If I were in that government position, what would I do differently and why? These kinds of questions remove the spotlight from them and focuses it on us, something that makes us squirm . . .


  9. Hey, true talk here.
    We are soon to cast pebbles, stones and acusations the way of those who serve in government.
    I met mr Abati and other figures of the media as a campus journalist in my undergrad days…
    They taught us ethics and honour… Whatever they may have turned to cannot really be understood presently until they are out of office and so out of bond of the oath of office.
    My experience as a social critic as a campus journalist is akin to his… As a norminal journalist, I lambasted all and sundry – the VC, faculty deans, students’ leadership and even dared cultists. Albeit, I became an administrator of a union that serves as a watchdog for the student in the absence of a student union….
    Sundenly everyone wants us to pull a fight with the sch admin regardless of its justification or not… I didn’t and I was alleged to have been bought over with laptops and cash….LOL
    Really, I was bought over with better logic and an insight into the workings of the system.


    1. Charles, thanks a mil for your insight. It must have been tough being in that position.

      Should social critics and activists serve the governments they criticize? And if altruism goads them to serve, what is the yardstick for performance seeing that once a watchdog lives inside the house, it cannot bark any more?

      I’m glad you mentioned ethics. Leaders of our generation ought to think these things through and define where they draw the line. Mandela was celebrated for not compromising his convictions. It cost him decades in prison. I’m not sure many of us would like “a long walk to freedom” 🙂


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